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UAE energy minister and Siemens CEO agree it's time for the US to move on from coal

Key Points
  • Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser and United Arab Emirates Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei criticized coal consumption in the U.S., stressing that it was time to move on to cleaner fuel sources and a more diversified energy mix.
  • Coal, considered the dirtiest fossil fuel, was the second-largest source of U.S. electricity generation in 2017 at about 30 percent of the energy mix, according to the Energy Information Agency.

Energy industry leaders issued calls for a greater commitment to developing renewable energy sources during the 2019 World Government Summit in Dubai — and some honed in specifically on the U.S. coal industry as an obstacle to those goals.

Siemens CEO Joe Kaeser and United Arab Emirates Energy Minister Suhail al-Mazrouei criticized coal consumption in the U.S., stressing that it was time to move on to cleaner fuel sources and a more diversified energy mix.

"What we need from the U.S. is lower coal and higher gas and higher contributions from gas and solar," al-Mazrouei told CNBC's Hadley Gamble during a panel discussion on the future of energy.

"That is what the world expects from leading industrial country like the United States. And I think there are good signs of that, it's happening no matter how we look at it."

Kaeser, CEO of German industrial conglomerate Siemens, had stronger words for the Donald Trump administration's aversion to climate change legislation and staunch promotion of the coal industry, though refrained from criticizing the president directly.

"The U.S. has more than 100 gigawatts of coal-fired power plants, and they've got abundant gas right around corner, whether it's shale or natural gas — so there is no point in complaining about climate change, whether people think it's invented by the Chinese or not," Kaeser said, when asked about political obstacles to cleaner energy goals.

Supporters of President Donald Trump attend a political rally at Charleston Civic Center in Charleston, West Virginia, on August 21, 2018. 
MANDEL NGAN | AFP | Getty Images

"The facts are the facts and people come and go, so we need to just go by the facts and get something done. So in the short term, it is about gas for coal, with some renewable energies on the side," the CEO said, adding that steps taken in this direction would lead to "a better world."

Coal, considered the dirtiest fossil fuel, was the second-largest source of U.S. electricity generation in 2017 at about 30 percent of the energy mix, according to the Energy Information Administration (EIA). Trump has made reviving the U.S. coal industry one of the cornerstones of his presidency, in turn enjoying significant support from voters in coal mining regions of the country.

Critics accuse Trump of dismantling the previous administration's efforts on green energy legislation, particularly after his 2017 withdrawal from the COP21 Paris accord.

Trump has regularly decried climate change as a hoax, often claiming it was conjured up by the Chinese to blunt U.S. energy competitiveness. He has more recently conceded that he believes the phenomena exists, but dismisses warnings that it is as harmful as climate scientists warn and in November Trump rejected a government-led report outlining devastating consequences on the global economy.

Studies show that more than 90 percent of climate scientists believe climate change is not only real, but a threat to the planet and to the economy.

'It's a natural choice'

The EIA reports that the three major fossil fuels — petroleum, natural gas and coal — accounted for about 77 percent of primary energy production in the U.S. in 2017.

But al-Mazrouei was optimistic that the tide was turning in the U.S., emphasizing that the world's largest economy is an ally, and as the largest producer and consumer of oil today, played a major role in the future of global energy.

"We don't look at it as a political issue … We look at whatever the U.S. has to say, and we weigh it toward the overall challenges of energy," the minister said, pointing to California's push ahead in renewables as a positive example. He added that in the U.S., trends were pointing toward increased use of natural gas, the cleanest of the fossil fuels.

United Arab Emirates' energy minister Suhail Mohammed Al Mazrouei
Seong Joon Cho | Bloomberg | Getty Images

What strikes al-Mazrouei as the most important development in energy use is the fact that renewable energy is becoming cheaper. "It's not just something governments have to support for it to succeed. It's a natural choice," he said, adding that the key remaining challenge is availability, and making power generation cheaper and more efficient.

Renewable power generation costs are coming down by the year. The period between 2010 and 2016 saw a 69 percent decrease in the cost of electricity from solar photovoltaics and an 18 percent cost decrease for onshore wind, putting the former "well into the cost range of fossil fuels," according to the international Renewable Energy Agency.

Renewable energy use growing worldwide

Consumption of non-hydroelectric renewable energy sources, including biofuels, solar and wind energy, more than doubled in the U.S. between 2000 and 2017, according to the EIA — thanks mainly to state and federal government mandates incentives. The organization expects renewable energy consumption will "continue to increase through 2050."

Renewables provided 8 percent of the world's electricity in 2017, according to statistics from BP. While this remains a small fraction of the global energy mix, it's a 17 percent jump from the year before and accounted for nearly half of 2017's global power generation growth.

And despite the U.S.'s withdrawal from the COP21 climate agreement, the remaining signatories of the Paris accord have set high capacity installation targets for the next 10 to 15 years.